Graduation Week at The Old Town School of Folk Music
Last night was my final West African Dance class of the current session, and we had a recital onstage at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The school is housed in a grand building on Lincoln Avenue that was once a library and retains traces of its bookish past; above the stage is a WPA mural underscored by the words "enjoy toys, the world we live in, making airplanes, boats, books tell us of King Arthur, costume and pioneer days, building skyscrapers, electricity."
My fellow classmates and I - six of us in all, got on stage to the rhythm of live djembe drumming, and brought the house down. After spending eight weeks dancing in the studio classroom, it was gratifying to perform in front of an audience, and the group assembled at the Old Town School couldn't have been less judgmental - everyone in the auditorium had to get on stage at some point, making the atmosphere less American Idol and more like talent night at summer camp. We practiced our dance moves in the hallway as a group of musicians rehearsed Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it was a quintessential Old Town School moment.
The six of us stood across from each other on the stage, three on each side, and at the appropriate drumbeat - what our teacher calls "the break," we started moving towards each other in dance formation until we'd found our mark, faced the audience, and moved to the next step. Midway through the dance we formed a circle using dance steps and then moved back to our original spots, a maneuver that wowed the audience. I was standing up front at stage right, and could see the audience - mostly guitar students, with instruments in their laps or in cases sitting next to them. Our dance lasted all of three minutes, and we received a truly raucous round of applause and shouts for our efforts. It was fantastic. Three West African Dance classes performed in a row, ceaseless drumming spurring on one class after the next. After that came the Middle Eastern Belly Dancers in all their jangly, hip-centered self-confidence, the metal disks on their hip scarves bouncing in unison like a school of small, shiny fish.
Next came the guitar classes, who serenaded the audience with the following:
Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Were Made for Walkin';
Neil Young's Harvest Moon (which I sang along to);
Chris Hillman's My Baby's Gone;
The Eurythmics' Here Comes the Rain Again - which, if you've never heard played on acoustic guitar, is something else; and
Brandy Carlisle's Wish I Could Be There Tonight.
The guitar-heavy lineup was broken up by harmonica level one, and a class called "harmonica forever", who played Roll On Weary River and Bob Dylan's Beyond Here Lies Nothing, respectively. They had a backup band supporting them: a mandolin, two guitars, a standing bass and a tambourine, and I decided that if one instrument could follow me around in my daily life to provide a soundtrack to the most mundane of my everyday activities, it would be a standing bass; no other instrument underscores the moment in quite the same way.
Once the harmonica students moved off the stage there were more guitar classes, and picking up on the Dylan theme they started us off with You Ain't Goin' Nowhere, followed by America's Sister Golden Hair, and a song called Ophelia, (I'm not sure who wrote it). The evening closed with a rendition of Stone Temple Pilots Plush, which reminded me of an adage told onstage many Old Town School graduations ago - if you're looking for the definition of folk music, well... that depends on which folks you're talking about.
I sat in the audience and I watched it all; fingers squeaking along guitar strings as they moved from one note to the next, harmonica players hesitating before chord changes, and it reminded me of why I love this place. The first time I ever set foot in the Old Town School of Folk Music was before they moved into the Lincoln Avenue Location. I was visiting a friend who worked on Armitage, saw the Old Town School's music store, and walked in out of curiosity. A concert was about to begin, and the person manning the doors of the concert hall asked if I'd like to take a seat and listen for free; there were empty seats, and the musicians had come all the way from China to perform.
What I saw mesmerized me. The only Chinese music I'd heard up to that point in my life was played on the sound systems of cheap Chinese restaurants. This was different, it was beautiful and enchanting, and unlike anything I'd ever heard before. That's what I love the most about the Old Town School of Folk Music; whether it's a band from Uganda you've never heard of or a headliner that you bought the tickets to months in advance, you hear it in the intimacy of a 300 seat auditorium, and even if it's music you've heard a hundred times before, it becomes new to you.
When you become a student at the school, you become a part of a 50-plus year history of people who picked up an instrument, or decided to learn how to dance, or opened their mouths to sing, and allowed themselves to once again be beginners at something - perhaps for the first time in years. None of the people on stage last night were experts, and none of them were trying to be the best, they were just people who enjoyed learning a new instrument or a new dance and had a chance to get up on stage for three minutes and share it with a roomful of peers. Its one of the best things about Chicago, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.